In the News
June 13, 2023
By Andrew Solender
Western lawmakers whose constituencies have long dealt with wildfires are using last week’s smoke crisis to propel new legislation, Axios has learned.
Why it matters: The smoke that enveloped much of the northeastern United States revealed to some in Congress that climate change is turning what was once a regional problem into a national one.
- "For the first time, non-western members are proactively engaging us on wildfire policy," Rep. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) told Axios in a statement.
- “Coloradans are all too familiar with the wildfire smoke that engulfed communities across the East Coast last week – it’s a reality that we have long dealt with in our state and across the West," Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said in a statement.
Driving the news: Peters, Bennet and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) plan to introduce legislation to help establish public clean air centers and distribute air filtration units to certain households in areas affected by wildfires.
- The Cleaner Air Spaces Act, a copy of which was obtained by Axios, directs the Environmental Protection Agency to provide grants of up to $3 million to state and local air pollution agencies and community organizations.
- Each cleaner air program would be required to provide a minimum of 1,000 filtration units to low-income households with vulnerable residents.
- The programs would also be required to provide educational materials on setting up clean air rooms and to advertise the public centers during wildfires.
By the numbers: Among the bill's 11 House co-sponsors are several East Coasters: Reps. Seth Moulton (D-Mass.), Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) and Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.), as well as a Midwesterner: Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.).
- The bill's Senate co-sponsors include Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.).
The legislation is just one of a raft of wildfire and forest management-focused bills being pushed in the wake of the smoke crisis, Axios Pro reports.
- The Republican-led House Natural Resources Committee is marking up two bills on Tuesday aimed at improving forest management – reducing the amount of brush that serves as fuel for the blazes.
- Rep. Jared Huffman (D-Calif.) is also reintroducing legislation aimed at strengthening local wildfire evacuation and resilience planning.
Zoom in: Wildfire smoke from Canada last week shattered poor air quality records throughout the Northeast, affecting 60 million Americans.
Zoom out: The West has seen a marked increase in the area burned by wildfires in recent decades due in large part to the effects of climate change, which has caused a dangerous combination of higher temperatures, lower humidity and high winds to occur more frequently.
- That dynamic is impacting other parts of the country: The National Interagency Fire Center's four-month fire risk forecast highlighted the Great Lakes and Northeast as having an above average likelihood of large wildfires this summer.
What we're watching: House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who previously collaborated with Peters on wildfire-focused legislation, will be the key to whether this bill gets a vote in the House.
- Peters is projecting optimism: "I think you will see a big push going forward on bills like this to deal with the consequences of fires and on commonsense bipartisan forest management solutions," he said.
- McCarthy's office did not respond to a request for comment.